Islamists in Indonesia Flog 'Blasphemous' Christians, Shutter Churches

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

The vulnerability of Indonesia’s Christians, as well as other religious minorities, is exponentially increasing as radical Islam tightens its grip on the country.

The risks faced by non-Muslims were dramatically revealed in late February by a shocking, widely viewed video in which two Christians were publically flogged in front of a mocking crowd.

The Wall Street Journal reported, “Two Indonesian Christians were publicly whipped for gambling, a rare case of non-Muslims being punished here under Islamic law, as the country shifts toward a more politicized brand of the religion associated with the Middle East.

“The man and woman are residents of Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, a province that has imposed strict Shariah law. They were whipped at least six times each on Tuesday by a robed man wearing a mask and wielding a rattan cane. Hundreds of onlookers jeered them as the punishment was carried out on a stage next to a mosque in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.”

Their “gambling,” according to the, involved “playing a long-standing game at a children’s entertainment complex that lets users exchange coins for prizes or vouchers, including cash.”

Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population in the world. For many years, particularly under the influential religious and political leadership of former Indonesia President Abdurrahman Wahid, the Southeast Asian archipelago was known for its religious tolerance.

Wahid served as leading Muslim figure for decades, and was Indonesia’s president from 1999 to 2001, during which his deep dedication to religious freedom enhanced the Southeast Asian nation’s peaceful reputation.

Islam, it was often said in those days, “came to Indonesia on a breeze, not a bullet.”

President Wahid was a courageous man. Despite his lifelong commitment to Islam, he visited Israel six times, and openly defended his relationships there.

In 2004, he explained, “I always say that China and the Soviet Union have or had atheism as part of their constitution, but we have long-term relationships with both these countries. So then Israel has a reputation as a nation with a high regard for God and religion — there is then no reason we have to be against Israel."

Unfortunately, Wahid died in 2009. And since then, times have certainly changed in Indonesia. The former president’s tolerant influence seems to have been drowned out by a tsunami of Saudi Arabian money pouring into Indonesia’s coffers. Predictably, this has led to a surge in Islamist extremism.

Random stories of terrorist attacks have been reported for years. The grisly beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in 2005 shocked the world.

Attacks on churches including arson, incendiary devices, defilement of sanctuaries, and harassment of churchgoers are not unusual. In fact, an act of vandalism took place just days ago in Seberang Ulu, near the provincial capital of South Sumatra.

According to Asia Times, “A group of six vandals blew a hole through the wall of the church, consecrated just last March 4 by Msgr. Aloysius Sudarso. The strangers then destroyed a statue of the Virgin and stacked some chairs setting them on fire.

“The noise woke the faithful who live nearby. They rushed to extinguish the flames, while the thugs fled from the place of worship.”

Mohammed Ismail Yusanto, a spokesman for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a banned Islamic group, proudly told an NPR reporter in November that some 1,000 Indonesian churches have been shuttered in the last decade.


But perhaps even more foreboding than attacks on churches or individual non-Muslims, is Indonesia’s blasphemy law. The application of such laws — as is so tragically evident in Pakistan — is far too often abused.

In fact, unlikely as it seems, in May 2017 the governor of Jakarta — a popular Chinese Christian — was jailed for blasphemy, a vague crime that can easily be manipulated to serve as a weapon against one’s rivals.

The Guardian reported, “Jakarta’s Christian governor has been sentenced to two years in prison after a trial that was widely seen as a measure of religious pluralism in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

“Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, was ‘found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment,’ the head judge, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, told the court.’”

An appeal has been filed on Ahok’s behalf, but he remains in prison today, having served about half of his excessive two-year sentence.

What lies ahead for the world’s largest Islamic land? Moderation in the tradition of Abdurrahman Wahid? Or increasing Islamist persecution and violence against Christians and other minorities, often underwritten by governments like Saudi Arabia?

I spoke to Hillel Fradkin, director of Hudson Institute’s Center on Islam, about Indonesia’s future path.

“In the past, Saudi Arabia’s vast Wahabist investments in various Muslim countries have quickly led to intensified radicalization,” Fradkin explained. “This clearly has been the case in Indonesia, and particularly in Aceh Province.

“Recently, however, Saudi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been introducing a new, moderate Saudi face to the world. He has repeatedly called out to Muslim leaders to practice modernization and de-radicalization.

“His words resonate well. But will Saudi Arabia actually stop its international funding for radical Islamist mosques and organizations?

“If so,” Fradkin concluded, “it will indicate that the Crown Prince’s message signals a genuine move toward moderation. And that, in turn, will bode well for religious freedom — both in Indonesia and beyond.”